Copyright 2012 by John T. Reed

For the first seven chapters I thought this was a brilliant book. It was not bad in the last two chapters, just not as good as first seven.

I have since noticed people on TV quoting this book without mentioning their source—like saying that Big Government means Small Citizens. Steyn is really quite good at turning phrases like that.

He is also often absolutely hilarious—as much in print as when he is substituting for Rush Limbaugh. Both Limbaugh and Steyn are on my list of national treasures whom we do not value enough.

Steyn never went to college

To my great surprise, I learned in this book for the first time that Steyn never went to college. I would never have guessed that except for one thing. Steyn is an excellent writer but for one flaw. He sometimes makes a mistake known in the writing business as “writing to impress rather than to express.” Lawyers and judges are the main purveyors of that mistake.

Writing to impress rather than express refers to using writing as an occasion to show off your broad, erudite, classical education. I once criticized another writer for that in a Harvard Writers group. He later switched to another writers group and I suspected it was because my criticism stung too much. Anyway, after levying that criticism of his writing, I said that one of the motives of I and other non-fiction writers was to show off how much we knew. The group leader thought that was 180 degrees inconsistent with my criticism of writing to impress rather than express. No it’s not.

Showing off your knowledge is by definition essential to non-fiction writing. In order to write a non-fiction book, you have to have a tremendous knowledge of the subject matter of the book. The whole reason anyone buys a non-fiction book is to acquire part of the author’s knowledge.

When you write a non-fiction book, you are, by definition, showing off your subject matter knowledge. It cannot be avoided. It is the whole point of the exercise other than making money. Writing to impress rather than express is not showing off knowledge of the subject matter of a non-fiction book. It is showing off your knowledge of subjects unrelated to the book. Showing off aristocratic educational experiences to tell aristocratic readers that you are one of them—like preppies wearing their “uniform” or putting the name of their elementary school on their resumes.

I discuss all this sort of thing in great detail in my book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book.

Anyway, Steyn seems a little bit insecure about his lack of a college education and his writing to impress rather than express at times is, I suspect, an attempt to compensate for the lack of formal higher education. You can spot these lapses. They are simply literary references that you never heard of. For example on page 327

That’s to say, this rotting, dilapidated, mildewed Dotheby’s Hall of a Gothic mausoleum dates all the way back to the Cyndi Lauper era.

I’ve heard of Cyndi, but not Dotheby’s.

I graduated from West Point—not a great literary school—and Harvard Business School—ditto. But if you are making many references that go over the head of such a reader, you are getting way to out there for an appeal-to-the-masses best seller, which After America reportedly is. I read a ton of books and I rarely have the experience of not getting references, so in this case, it is Steyn’s problem, not mine.


I will also fault him a little for not being an American. It’s not his fault, but it prevents him from fully understanding us.

He was born in Canada and grew up there. He went to middle and high school at King Edward’s School in England—apparently a very high tone British boys boarding school of the type that inspired Harry Potter’s school. He now lives in New Hampshire.

He jokes about his very British accent, but I wonder how a boy who was in Canada until age 11 acquires a British accent starting at that age by studying in the U.K. Giving his ages, it sounds like it must be an affectation. Whatever, he is a great American writer. However, on rare occasions, his lack of being a grew-up-in-America American shows.

U.S. will break up like the Soviet Union?

The main time when that happens in After America is his prediction that the United States will break up because what I call the maker states will get fed up with the taker states and separate from the U.S. I half-jokingly advocated that in an article. I was only kidding. Steyn is serious. I think I speak for all grew-up-here Americans when I tell Mark, that ain’t gonna happen. I see your logic, but it just ain’t gonna happen.

We are the United States of America. 50 states. We want the takers to stop taking so much, but we are not going to give them any part of our country to make that happen.

We already tried the secession thing once. It was called the Civil War. It was not a happy occasion and the seceders, the Southeast part of the country—in spite of saying “the South will rise again”—do not really want a rematch. I do not know of a way to persuade Steyn about it. It’s an American thing. You won’t understand it if you are a Canadian/Brit. Britain is the remnant of a prior worldwide empire that have been cut up into relatively little pieces now. So I guess they have accepted that sort of thing.

Canada has contended with Quebecois separatists for decades as well as some oil-rich western provinces talking about joining the U.S. back in the 1980s. I heard a lecture about a year ago in San Francisco by a Canadian who seriously proposed that Canada, or at least the English-speaking part, merge with the U.S. it was quite well thought out and interesting and made a lot of sense.

In short, I see little prospect that the U.S. will merge with any Canadian provinces, but I think that expansion is infinitely more likely than the U.S. splitting up. Steyn seems incapable of comprehending that the U.S. will never split up, I assume because he did not move to the U.S. until he was an adult. He is still a Canadian citizen. He applies logic to his prediction that we will split up, and seems to love America with the zeal of the converted, but he lacks a fundamental understanding of what it means to be an American.

But the book otherwise is still brilliant. I can prove it by just quoting it for the most part.

Page 14: What is happening to the United States is not “cyclical,” but structural.

There is nothing virtuous about “caring” compassionate” “progressives” demonstrating how caring and compassionate and progressive they are by spending money yet to be earned by generations yet to be born.

Page 19…the United States, as Europe did, will abandon military capability and toss the savings into the great sucking maw of social spending.

Page 31According to Professor Charlton, in the 1970s “the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy.”

Page 33 America has a money-no-object government with a lot of money but no great objects.

Page 38 …free peoples who were once willing to give their lives for liberty can be persuaded very easily to relinquish their liberties for a quiet life.

Page 52 Because the governmentization of health care is the fastest way to a permanent left-of-center political culture. It redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state in a fundamental way that makes small government all but impossible ever again.

Page 55 [On Obama] Other than demonstrate a remarkably focused talent for self-promotion, what has he ever done? Even as a legendary thinker, what original thought has he ever expressed in his entire life?

Page 56 Barack Obama is so smart he had a fake Martin Luther King quote sewn into the Oval Office carpet (“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”)

[And I, John T. Reed, would add, “What does that mean?”]

Steyn also provides a lot of important but not widely known facts. By 2004, 20% of U.S. households were getting 75% of their income from federal government. In the U.K., 5 billion people—a tenth of the adult population—have not done a day’s work since the New Labour Party took control in 1997.

Democrat pollster Pat Cadell described today’s situation in the U.S., where there are no democratic means by which the people can restrain their rulers, as “pre-revolutionary.”

Page 82 For more and more Americans, law has been supplanted by “regulation”—a governing set of rules not legislated by representatives accountable to the people, but invented by an activist bureaucracy which is well to the left of either political party.

But he occasionally repeats “facts” that are not so like

All the stuff that used to be made in America is now made somewhere else.

The most recent figures I could find says the U.S. is still the number one manufacturing country in the world with China close behind. Number 3 Japan is well behind.

Page 104 Greece is at the point…where the canoe is about to plunge over the falls. America is upstream and can still pull for shore, but has decided instead that what it wants to do is not just drift along with the general current but paddle as fast as it can to catch up with the Greeks.

Page 119 …the good times in Europe were underwritten by…For over 60 years America has paid for Europe’s defense.

Page 131 When Michelle Obama turns up to serve food at a soup kitchen, its poverty-stricken clientele snap pictures of her with their cellphones.

Page 170 Regarding letting Muslims kill us to avoid profiling:

Old watchword: Better dead than red. Updated version: Better screwed than rude.

Childhood has expanded—26-year olds on the parents’ health care insurance and even older children still living at home with parents. Simultaneously, retirement age has moved lower and lower leaving the ages when you are supposed to support yourself shrinking as Democrats move more and more voters onto the government rolls to cement their power.

Adults in Western Europe and North America are being turned into Eloi, says Steyn. I will let you have the fun of looking that up if you forget, or never knew, what it means.

Page 230 We’re the first society in which a symptom of poverty is obesity.

Steyn’s chapter 8 is in the form of a letter from the future. It does not work. Too cumbersome. But some good analysis if you can fight through the format.

Page 329 Because that’s what [Obama] likes about it: the willingness of freeborn citizens to be strapped into the baby seats of Big Nanny.

Steyn also found a lot of great but somewhat obscure quotes from others like this one from Ronald Reagan:

It is important to recognize the distinction between problems of national scope (which may justify federal action) and problems that are merely common to the states.

I highly recommend the book. It has so many well-written analyses of our current problems that they have begun to become part of the language and no doubt more will.

John T. Reed